This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Rick Plato's Dalhousie Tigers. How could it be anything else?
After three straight AUS titles and a U Sports bronze medal in 2017, the Tigers needed a fresh coat of paint.
Kashrell Lawrence, Ritchie Kanza Mata and Jarred Reid, all cornerstones of the team's success, and senior transfer Ryall Stroud were all finished after last year's tournament, which saw the Tigers lose in the Final 8 semifinals to Ryerson when Lawrence's last shot glanced unkindly.
It left Sven Stammberger, a key piece with broad shoulders, Jordan Aquino-Serjue and some others who had contributed as role players and prospects. Alex Carson and Cedric Sanogo had shown they could play, but injuries negated their seasons in 2016-17.
New names would have to emerge to replace the former names, and quickly, if the Tigers were to contend for a fourth straight AUS championship.
The free pass is gone this year, and Plato knows it. Dalhousie had an automatic bid to the 2017 tournament at Scotiabank Centre as the host entry. Acadia has the honour this year and the Tigers understand the only realistic way in beside that is to win the conference.
But there are truths about Plato, who considers legendary player and coach Brian Heaney his mentor, that span decades in AUS basketball. He won as a player at Saint Mary's on heart and attention to detail. He won at Mount Saint Vincent often on force of will.
His first Dalhousie team lost a bucket full of tight games as the new era after John Campbell took root. They made the best of those hard lessons, and the wins followed.
"We basically have eight new players," said Plato, who brought his team back into the gym on Boxing Day to get ready for the Rod and Joan Shoveller Memorial Tournament at Dalplex beginning on Friday. "The guys we had returning, they had a few minutes here and there, but really they didn't play a lot.
"I knew early on, and I told the boys, it was going to take some time. I had to be patient, and I might not be the most patient person in the world."
Plato's passion spills out of every sweat gland. Watching his veterans leave a year ago was an emotional experience.
But it didn't take long before he took inventory. Carson, a shooting guard out for all of the second half last year with a groin injury, and Sanogo, another guard out for the entire year after shoulder surgery, had shown they could play.
Sascha Kappos, a six-foot-10 forward, had played 11 minutes a game and scored 5.4 points.
Then there was the recruiting class, headed by former Horton player Keevan Veinot.
Plato built the toughest pre-season schedule he could to allow Stammberger, Veinot, Aquino-Serjue, Kappos and Carson, all averaging more than 25 minutes this year, the best chance to mesh.
How did it go? The team won 13 of its first 14. The Tigers lost back-to-back to Acadia by a combined 10 points before defeating Saint Mary's 70-59 to close the first half on Nov. 21.
UNB led the conference into the break at 7-1 with Acadia right behind at 6-1. Dalhousie is alone in third at 5-2.
If somebody had told Plato last summer he'd be 14-3 at Christmas with a 5-2 conference record, and in the U Sports top-10 rankings at No. 9, he'd have danced a jig.
"I wasn't too happy about our Acadia losses, but that's going to happen with a young team. And Acadia is a really good team. I don't expect to go undefeated."
It's been a challenge in some ways. Plato has had more teaching to do this year. For one thing, Plato is demanding his players show improvement at the free-throw line.
"Ritchie, Kash and Jarred, along with Sven and Cedric and a few of the other guys, they've been there. They've been in the close games. People always say you guys win a lot of close games. But in the first year we didn't win those games.
"I always stress the little things. You can't control the crowd. You can't control the calls. But you can control your decision making. We've got the talent. But experience in pressure situations? That's the biggest thing."
Stammberger is on his way to an all-Canadian season, averaging 21.9 points and 10 rebounds. He's enjoying his best varsity season amid the demands of an MBA program.
He red-shirted out of high school and broke his wrist in his first season. Still, he persevered to be part of three title teams with a chance at a fourth.
"There are so many negative things, the scandals that go on, when you have a kid like that it's almost too good to be true," Plato said.
Plato thinks the Tigers might have been overlooked a bit going into the season. But the reboot looks like it is ahead of schedule.
January will come soon enough. Then comes the stretch run. The AUS tournament is only 10 weeks away.
"The excitement. The experience. I want it for these guys. To win three in a row is special," Plato said.
"There are a lot of good teams in this conference. They've got some new people too so it's going to take some time. But I like our chances. It's a simple game. You've got to rebound, stop the other guy and take care of the ball. We got off to a good start and now we've got to keep it going."
Friday's games at the Shoveller are Saint Mary's-Concordia at 1 p.m., St. Francis Xavier-Acadia at 3 p.m., University of Northern British Columbia vs. UPEI at 6 p.m. and Dalhousie vs Mount Saint Vincent at 8 p.m. Sunday's final is at 3 p.m.